KKL-JNF preserves Jerusalem’s most amazing trees

Tree historian Yaacov Shkolnik invites 'The Jerusalem Post' to visit some of the capital's most amazing trees.

December 19, 2012 23:26
3 minute read.
Olive trees in Gethsemane.

Olive trees in Gethsemane 370. (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)


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But those trees! Those trees!
Those Truffula Trees!
All my life I'd been searching
for trees such as these.

Dr. Seuss’s beloved tale The Lorax follows “a little man who speaks for the trees” as he tries to prevent the demise of the Truffula trees. The trees are at risk to being lost to development and construction due to a greedy businessman who makes Thneads (A Thnead’s A Fine-Something- That-All-People-Need).

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Back in 1971, Dr. Seuss’s whimsical rhymes served as a warning about the importance of preserving the trees in the face of progress.

Today, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund has its own modern-day Lorax, tree historian and guide Yaacov Shkolnik. Shkolnik is part of the Ancient Trees Task Force, and one of the authors of 101 Special and Amazing Trees in Israel. He travels around the country researching the stories of famous or ancient trees.

Shkolnik has worked with Sohil Zidan, KKL-JNF’s olive and fruit grove expert, and Dr. Yoram Goldring, the organization’s chief ecologist, over the past eight years to map 200 of the country’s most unique and interesting trees. Documenting a tree and including it in a database for special trees allows KKL-JNF to monitor the tree, ensuring its health and protecting it from development or destruction.

Just before the end of 2012, Shkolnik invited The Jerusalem Post to visit some of the capital’s most amazing trees.

• Olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane Israel’s most famous trees are the ancient olive trees located in the Garden of Gethsemane, the valley at the foot of the Mount of Olives where Christians believe Jesus prayed before he was crucified.

Olive trees pose a puzzle for researchers because their gnarled and irregular trunks do not allow one to count growth rings, the most common way to measure a tree’s age. In October, the National Research Council of Italy Trees and Timber Institute and academics from five Italian universities carbon-dated the olive trees. They found parts of them that dated back to 1092, 1166 and 1198, meaning some parts of the trees alive today are nearly a millennia old.

• Israel’s tallest laurel tree The British War Cemetery on Mount Scopus is one of those tucked-away corners of Jerusalem where history almost gets forgotten. British soldiers who died in the Jerusalem area during World War I – 2,514 of them – are buried just next to the Hebrew University.

In front of the cemetery grows Israel’s largest laurel tree, also known as a bay leaf tree. Shkolnik said the tree is approximately 100 years old, and could have been planted when the cemetery was built.

It stands more than 17 meters tall, and the trunk looks as if three trees fused together.

Shkolnik believes that irrigation in the cemetery allowed the tree to grow to an enormous height, considering that the average laurel tree in the Galilee is 3 to 4 meters tall. He has yet to find a taller laurel tree in Israel, crowning the Jerusalem version the tallest.

But the extra water is proving fatal to a nearby strawberry tree, an indigenous tree that grows in poor soil. A stately strawberry tree in the middle of the cemetery’s irrigation area whose red branches reach out over the neat white graves is slowly dying, and Shkolnik suspects over-watering is the culprit.

• Cypress tree at the Monastery of the Cross The tree that Christians believe was used for the Jesus’s crucifixion is no longer alive. According to tradition, Abraham gave Lot three trees – a cedar, a cypress, and an olive tree – that miraculously grew together into one tree.

The Monastery of the Cross marks the place where Orthodox Christians believe the tree stood. Inside the courtyard of the monastery are two tall cypress trees. One of the priests in the monastery told Shkolnik that a devout pilgrim brought the trees from Mount Athos in Greece.

Mount Athos is one of the holiest sites for Orthodox Greeks, the spiritual “Holy Mountain” which forbids women and children from entering. One of the cypresses in Jerusalem has grown so large that the flesh of its trunk grew into the steel railing leading up to the third floor of the monastery.

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